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Under the Access to Information Act, anyone who makes a request for information to a federal institution and is dissatisfied with the response has the right to complain to us.
One common reason for complaints is the time it takes an institution to respond to a request. Federal institutions have 30 days to do so but they may extend that time for a number of reasons-for example, when they have to search a large number of records, consult other federal institutions or notify third parties-and they must notify requesters of these extensions within the initial 30 days. Requesters may file complaints about this notice, about the length of extensions or because they feel, generally, that the process is taking too long.
Complaints also focus on the information that institutions choose to release or not to release. Institutions may apply specific and limited exemptions, after careful consideration of the balance between the right to information and the need to protect interests such as individual privacy, commercial confidentiality and national security, and to safeguard the frank communications that effective policy-making requires. There are also certain types of information, such as Cabinet confidences, that are excluded under the Act and that, consequently, institutions may not release. These exemptions and exclusions allow institutions to withhold material, which often prompts complaints.
Other types of complaints involve the following:
- requesters being asked to pay fees for requested information beyond the $5 application fee;
- requesters not receiving the records in their official language of choice or the translation taking an unreasonably long time;
- requesters having a problem with the InfoSource guide or the periodic bulletins that the Treasury Board Secretariat issues to help the public use the Act; and
- requesters running into other problems related to requesting or obtaining access to records.
The Act requires that we investigate all the complaints we receive and that those investigations be thorough, unbiased and conducted in private. Although there is no deadline in the law for when we must complete our investigations, we strive to carry them out as quickly as possible. We usually complete investigations of administrative complaints within six months to a year. Investigations that centre on complaints that information that has been withheld tend to be more complex or involve large volume of records and, consequently, take longer.
The Commissioner has strong investigative powers, which provide a real incentive for institutions to comply with the Act and respect requesters' rights. However, the Commissioner may not order a complaint to be resolved in a particular way, relying instead on persuasion to settle disputes, and asking for a review by the Federal Court of Canada when an institution has not followed a recommendation on disclosure of information and with the consent of the complainant.
Chapter 3 includes more information about the types of complaints we receive and the categories of findings that result from our investigations.